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Don’t go to college…

January 3, 2012

When I reflect back on the value of going to college, I come up with a solid list of things that occurred outside classrooms.

An opportunity to wrestle in a Division III athletics program

An opportunity to teach kindergarteners in inner-city Baltimore

An opportunity to apprentice in a scientific instrumentation development group

More and more, I am coming to think that one really shouldn’t go to college because classes are offered.  Just maybe you should go because the courses that are offered are mostly a joke; and if you are sufficiently prepared, you can probably just spend a few hours a week studying, focusing the rest of your time taking advantage of the abundant opportunities around college to find out about the limits of your physicality, humanity, and reason.

Surely, if you do happen to find an instructor that challenges you deeply as a human, by all means engage with those challenges, too  A fiction and poetry instructor troubled me deeply with two lines atop of a page: “Russell Edson covets your twisted brain. Ditch physics.” I had no idea who Russell Edson was, nor why I should ditch physics, but this led me to dig deep into poetry and writing, and think about why I was studying physics. In a very different way, a professor of mathematics who taught a course I wanted to take challenged me, by allowing me to take his course without a prerequisite course. In allowing this, he plopped down a book on differential geometry and said “Do all the problems in chapters 1-12 in the first five weeks and you’ll be caught up enough to understand the last ten weeks of the course.” Little did I know that everyone else in the course was doing the same thing. As the class unfolded, I learned that all he wanted was for us to learn how to learn from a textbook on our own.

In graduate school, because of prerequisites, I had to take some rather basic educational statistics course before taking some more advanced one that I wanted to take. About a third of the way into the semester, the professor wanted to meet with me after class. At that meeting he had a point to make: that it was a disgusting waste of my waking hours to come to his class. Then he handed me the final exam to take. I never attended his class nor talked to him again. Looking back on this moment, I feel like this professor knew something that I am just beginning to fully recognize, but yet I still can’t articulate what it is.

I do, however, tell people this all the time: I took very few courses in college every semester. I took 12-13 credits, whereas many student I encounter are taking 16-20 credits. See, in my mind, if you can come in with 24 credits from AP or community college classes, you could try to graduate from your university in 3 years. Or, you could just take 12 credits each semester, and free up your time to wrestle, teach kindergarten, and work in a research group. Your courses will mean more anyway, because you’ll have the mental space and time to immerse yourself in the course that, every now-and-then, springs up meaningful. Instead, I see college students either over-whelmed with superficial engagement, or slyly admitting that most of their courses are a joke.

I’m not sure how I feel about anything that I’ve just written. My thoughts are muddled, conflicted, and unstable. Should students seek out challenging courses, or should they just take the courses they are supposed to, and find ways to challenge themselves outside of courses? Maybe I just want to remind myself of these thoughts before I embark on another semester.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2012 5:41 pm

    Brian, your experience makes me want to be very careful about what college I try to send my kids to. I never once had a joke class in college. Some classes were more challenging than others, but no class was a waste of time, and right now off the top of my head I can remember more than one every year that was transformative. For example, I remember the class where I learned that every book is written by an author who is making a point, even if it seems on the surface like it’s just a record of historical events. I remember the class where I learned that my writing showed things about me that I had not articulated about myself (because my professor could see them). And I remember the research apprenticeship where I learned that if you made a giant mistake early on, meaning you weren’t testing what you thought you were testing, you could rewrite your whole thesis to represent what you WERE testing, with no shame. I went to a small liberal arts college – my guess is that that’s a big part of the difference.

  2. jsb16 permalink
    January 4, 2012 1:55 am

    Have you read Cal Newport’s blog? (If not, start here: ) What you’re saying sounds a lot like what he says about not trying to do too much academically all at once.

  3. January 4, 2012 2:22 am

    Damn, JSB beat me to it. You should definitely check out Study Hacks—Cal is a pretty amazing 1st year associate prof of CS at Georgetown, so you’ve got a lot in common. He wrote a really interesting post on his closed loop research system that made me want to be a professor who groks LaTeX just to be able to try it out.

    Also, his books, especially his third, How to be a high school superstar, are must reads for trying to create a extraordinary life filled with meaning and little stress.

  4. January 5, 2012 12:24 am

    RE: “Should students seek out challenging courses, or should they just take the courses they are supposed to, and find ways to challenge themselves outside of courses?”

    Any thoughts on John Holt/Grace Llewellyn and their ideas about unschooling”? You might find some resonance in The Teenage Liberation Handbook if you haven’t read it.

    RE: “it was a disgusting waste of my waking hours to come to his class.”

    I had that experience as well. My conclusion was “go to trade school instead.” It was more useful, more fun, and frankly more rigorous. I’m not suggesting that that answer is universal, only that it’s under-reported.

    Recently I read The Trouble With Ed Schools (by education researcher David Labaree) and this inquiry into the value of work (by motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford), at the same time. They were oddly complementary. Both gave me a lot more patience for wondering “why would a reasonable person” practice the thorough mental subjugation I sometimes see to the heavily game-ified system we call school. They also helped me think about why people might or might not change their minds.

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